Death of a Salesman

Arthur Miller, born October 17, 1915 in New York City, died on February 10, 2005 at his home in Connecticut.

I have respect for Arthur Miller’s entire career, but I feel one of his works stands out above the rest: the transcendent play Death of a Salesman. This contemporary tragedy about a small family facing business failure premiered in Broadway’s Morosco Theater on February 10, 1949 (the author would later die on the anniversary of this opening day).

A great play needs a great title (witness A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams, Long Day’s Journey into Night by Eugene O’Neill, etc.) but the title Death of a Salesman packs perhaps the most powerful punch of them all. Miller’s drama approaches its lead character with compassion and understanding, yet the very title sneers at him. The words read like a slap in the face: death of a parasite, death of a pest. This is what Willy Loman feels like during every moment of the play.

In fact, we all know it takes drive and creativity to be a good salesperson. But Willy Loman is not a good salesperson. He is a proud man and a big dreamer, but by the end of his life he has become an obvious failure, an open wound, driving around aimlessly in his car, calling on “important contacts”, failing to close every deal, unable to pay his household bills. Worst of all, he can’t bear to face his family and friends with these embarrassing truths, instead choosing the painful path of denial.

The play curves through several socio-dramatic landscapes. It certainly stands as a critique of American capitalism and the cult of the “winner” (a cult which is still blooming, as in television shows like ‘The Apprentice’). It is also a winsome, affectionate time capsule of 1940’s suburban culture. But the play reaches greatness when it digs for a deeper truth, examining the complex, multi-layered relationships between all the members of the Loman family.

As Willy Loman’s world begins to collapse inwardly, he lavishes unwanted attention on his wife and sons, and we quickly realize that he is attempting sales pitches on each of them. His greatest failure as a salesman is right here, in fact, because nobody is buying it. But Willy Loman does not know how to fall with dignity, and when he finds he can’t put it over he feels exposed, useless, lost. Death of a salesman, indeed.

In his autobiographical discussions of this play, Arthur Miller made it clear that Willy Loman represented his father’s generation (and was specifically based on an unliked uncle, who provided many of Loman’s characteristics and obsessions). Arthur Miller himself, of course, is Biff, the angry older son, the only one who does not forgive his father at the end. At it’s core, Death of a Salesman is a book about a father and a son, maybe even a spin on Hamlet and Oedipus Rex. It is this dynamic that gives the play its mythic, timeless quality.

It may be that I love this play because I once saw a truly great production of it — in a neighborhood theater in suburban Commack, Long Island, of all places. The performers put it over, and I’m sure half the audience was dripping with tears by the final scene. But these were not tears of bathos or sentiment, but rather shock, catharsis and rage at the human condition itself. Quite a lot for a sunday afternoon at the Commack Players Theater.

I’ve heard that Arthur Miller provided two alternate versions of a physical insult in the play — if Willy Loman is played by a small man (like Dustin Hoffman) he is called a “shrimp”, but if the actor is large, Willy Loman is called a “walrus”. The lead actor on this night was definitely in the walrus category, and I’ll never forget how well he brought out the massive contradictions inside this character. Maybe someday I’ll see a great production of The Crucible or All My Sons and then I’ll appreciate those plays more too.

6 Responses

  1. The Crucible and the Chelsea
    The Crucible and the Chelsea Hotel

    Another thing I admire Arthur Miller for is his steadfast refusal to names names during the McCarthy “witch hunt” in the 1950’s. Today, anyone can claim almost any political affiliation without much fear of persecution, but during the “red scare” – largely due to Senator Joseph McCarthy – many people, including actors, writers, and politicians, had their careers damaged for being, or even suspected of being, communists or communist sympathizers. Arthur Miller was accused. The government asked him to give them some names of other people who might warrant investigation. He refused. This may not seem significant now, but it was a very brave thing to do at that time.

    Later, Miller wrote what is generally considered his second best play, The Crucible. While the play is about the Salem witch trials that actually took place in the 1500’s, there are obvious parallels to the paranoia, mob rule, and mania which possessed our fearfu government officials during the communist scare.

    I also came across a choice article written by Miller for Granta Magazine. If, like me, you are enthusiastic about the Beats, or the New York literary/art scene in general, you will probably agree with me that this is good stuff: Arthur Miller’s The Chelsea Hotel

  2. Salesman Quotes and
    Salesman Quotes and Comments

    1. “I went into the jungle and came out rich.” Willie Loman keeps hallucinating his brother saying that, as portrayed in the Dustin Hoffman vehicle.

    2.”Will you take that phony dream and burn it before something happens?” Biff

    3. “In just another month we’d be free and clear.” I believe these were WL’s wife words at WL’s interment which must’ve looked good onstage.

    4. a. There’s such a feeling of hopelessness in the play yet it remains a classic and has runs in NYC still, why?

    b. An example of a tragic hero in modern literature would be Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman.

    Some other common traits characteristic of a tragic

    He must suffer.

    He must be doomed from the start.

    He must be fundamentally noble in nature.

    His story should arouse fear and pity.

    Though doomed, he must have free choice to some degree.

  3. The Political is PersonalEver
    The Political is Personal

    Ever since reading and seeing the play for the first time, I’ve had a horror of an inner Willy Loman. Like, what if you try and try and you’re still just a loser, in your job and in your life? Because it’s not all up to you, some if it is external circumstances, and you do not have total control over them.

    But in an aspect that predates the feminist ‘personal is political’, one way out for Willy Loman is, I think, through a greater involvement in a larger political sphere. Those factory parts (for our planes? missles? can’t remember exactly) were substandard, and were shipped out anyway. If Willy had allowed that fact to deepen his political stance from naive wishful thinking patriotism, to something more complex and informed by economics, perhaps something more Marxist, that knowledge could have showed him some different paths, could have empowered him for some actions and perspectives he had never considered, and led him out of the “loser” trap he had fallen into. Dug himself into. Whatever: however he got there, I think greater political awareness was the way out. And with that, he would have necessary changed as a person. And that would then have necessarily changed his relationships, as well as opened up other ones (meetings, agendas, political groups, etc.).

    I remember watching “La Terra Trema” in college and the professor asking us after it was over, what did those fishermen need (in order not to have had their best intentions end them up as more downtrodden and miserable than they were at the start of the movie). The answer: they needed The Party! And while perhaps Willy Loman didn’t have to join The Party; even considering The Party as a metaphor for greater, more informed social consicousness, options and actions is a way out in itself. And of course a fascinating and I think completely intended observation on, and recommendation in, a time where the left was being systematically hounded out of existence.

    And not forgetting about The Crucible, which is my personal favorite — but that’s another essay!

  4. Very interesting political
    Very interesting political insights on Death of A Salesman which I had not thought of before. Thanks.

  5. I think that’s a really good
    I think that’s a really good point. I don’t remember any notion, anywhere in this play, that Willy Loman tries to find pride in “noble causes” or, in fact, anywhere outside his small circle of friends, neighbors and co-workers. I do think that this would have helped him feel better about this life (though it would have ruined the play, because then it wouldn’t be a complete tragedy!).

  6. Unless of course that you are
    Unless of course that you are one of those that is way too cool to ever try to do anything, the following quote IS the Greatest American Fear:…what if you try and try and you’re still just a loser, in your job and in your life? Because it’s not all up to you, some if it is external circumstances, and you do not have total control over them.

    This is the first time your correspondent ever heard someone honest enough to ask that.

    Losing and failure can cripple.

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